A new study suggests that we find fictional villains surprisingly likeable when they share certain similarities with us.
This attraction to potentially darker versions of ourselves in movies and books occurs even though we would be repulsed by real-world individuals with similar immoral or unstable behaviors.
One reason for this shift, the study indicates, is that fiction acts like a cognitive safety net, allowing us to identify with villainous characters without affecting our self-image.
“Our research suggests that stories and fictional worlds can offer a ‘safe haven’ for comparison to a villainous character that reminds us of ourselves,” said Rebecca Krause, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University and lead author on the paper.
“When people feel protected by the veil of fiction, they may show greater interest in learning about dark and sinister characters who resemble them.”
Academics have long suggested people recoil from others who are in many ways similar to themselves yet possess negative features such as obnoxiousness, instability, and treachery. Antisocial features in someone with otherwise similar qualities, the thinking goes, may be a threat to a person’s image of themselves.
“People want to see themselves in a positive light,” notes Krause. “Finding similarities between oneself and a bad person can be uncomfortable.”
In contrast, Krause and her coauthor and advisor Dr. Derek Rucker find that putting the bad person in a fictional context can remove that discomfort and even reverse this preference. In essence, this separation from reality reduces undesirable and uncomfortable feelings.
“When you are no longer uncomfortable with the comparison, there seems to be something alluring and enticing about having similarities with a villain,” Rucker said.
“For example,” said Krause, “people who see themselves as tricky and chaotic may feel especially drawn to the character of The Joker in the Batman movies, while a person who shares Lord Voldemort’s intellect and ambition may feel more drawn to that character in the Harry Potter series.”
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the website CharacTour, an online, character-focused entertainment platform that had approximately 232,500 registered users at the time of analysis.
One of the site’s features allows users to take a personality quiz and see their similarity to different characters who had been coded as either villainous or not. Villains included characters such as Maleficent, The Joker and Darth Vader. Nonvillains included Sherlock Holmes, Joey Tribbiani and Yoda.
The anonymous data from these quizzes allowed the researchers to test whether people were attracted toward or repulsed by similar villains, using nonvillains as a baseline. Not surprisingly, people were drawn to nonvillains as their similarity increased. However, the results further suggest that users were most drawn to villains who share similarities with them.
The researchers believe that similarities to story villains do not threaten the self in the way real-life villains would.
“Given the common finding that people are uncomfortable with an tend to avoid people who are similar to them and bad in some way, the fact that people actually prefer similar villains over dissimilar villains was surprising to us,” noted Rucker. “Honestly, going into the research, we both were aware of the possibility that we might find the opposite.”
The study did not identify which behaviors or traits the participants found attractive. More research is needed to investigate the psychological pull of villains and whether people are drawn toward similar villains in fiction because people look for chances to explore their own personal dark side.
“Perhaps fiction provides a way to engage with the dark aspects of your personality without making you question whether you are a good person in general,” said Krause.
The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.